Rick Romain has been an educator at P.S. 268 (Brooklyn, NY) for eight years, first as assistant principal and now as principal for the last four years. In that time, he has both witnessed and led the school’s effort to embrace the science of reading. When he first arrived at P.S. 268, there was no formal curriculum being used for literacy instruction. Seeking a more unified approach, the school adopted Units of Study, only to find that it wasn’t meeting students’ needs. “[Units of Study] got us to a certain point, but the challenge with leveled texts was that when you have a grade 4 student who is reading at a lower level, and they’re only exposed to that lower level, they have very little experience with complex texts. So when they would take state tests or different assessments, they ultimately didn’t do well,” said Romain.
- P.S. 268 The Emma Lazarus Elementary School
- 296 students
- 91% Black, 6% Hispanic
- Title I eligible
Romain realized that the school needed to make a shift. In his first year as principal, Romain assembled an instructional leadership team to research and vet different curricula. The group grounded this process in shared study of the Hallmarks of Advanced Literacies Instruction, detailed in a series of briefs published by the New York State Education Department to help educators implement the Next Generation Learning Standards. After reviewing several curricula, the team felt that Wit & Wisdom—with its rigorous instruction and complex texts, focus on vocabulary, and library of trade books and culturally relevant texts—was the best choice for their students.
“A few years ago, when we were looking at those Hallmarks of Advanced Literacies Instruction and researching curricula, we did see some comprehensive options that had phonics and vocabulary and reading and writing all in one. But one thing that we saw consistently was that the rigor just wasn't there. The teachers felt those options would have been a downgrade from what they were doing with Units of Study in terms of both writing and reading instruction.
The teachers who I spoke with felt that Wit & Wisdom was the one curriculum that would be an upgrade, and I agreed.”
—Rick Romain, Principal
The school started implementing Wit & Wisdom in school year 2020–2021 and was committed to success despite the challenging circumstances brought on by the Covid 19 pandemic. “The difference now is, starting from the lower grades, our children are always exposed to complex texts, and they learn to navigate them using all these strategies from Wit & Wisdom. At first glance, these trade books may be intimidating, but students learn to navigate them, so when they take local tests like the DRP [Degrees of Reading Power] or state tests, my students have been performing very well,” said Romain.
Encouraging Gains in State Test Data and Student Engagement
When sharing his excitement about this year’s state test results, Romain emphasized the growth that his school has seen in a relatively short period of time. “When I first came to the school and even when I became principal, my school was ranked the second-lowest performing school in our district—number 19 out of 20—and that was very sobering. With the first state test that we took after implementing Wit & Wisdom, even in the midst of a pandemic and in a short amount of time, that changed. We moved up to number 6 or 7, which was very encouraging.”
This year, P.S. 268 was the highest performing school in the district, and students outperformed the city on the New York State English Language Arts (ELA) test by earning an average of three more percentage points of the total possible points than the city in grade 3, 19 more percentage points in grade 4, and five more percentage points in grade 5. “I've been looking at state test results in this school for eight years and my goal was to someday be on the same level as the city. To reach a point where all three grades are scoring higher—and in some cases much higher—than the city is definitely a dream come true,” said Romain.
As you might find with any new curriculum implementation, there was initially some skepticism among teachers as they shifted the way they approached literacy instruction, but ultimately, student success has been a motivator across all grade levels. “I think it feels good for teachers to feel successful. Educators work hard whether you see it in the test scores or not, and it’s difficult when you have been working at something for a long time and you’re not seeing your students find success. But when you can see quantifiable success, it is extremely encouraging. It builds morale and it encourages teachers to continue doing what they’re doing,” says Romain.
Romain commented on how great it is to see students get excited and express their learning about different Wit & Wisdom modules, saying, “I hear them talking about certain topics outside of class and that’s how you know something is interesting: when you’re in the hallways and you can hear them continuing a conversation about what they learned, or when they just randomly come up and talk to me about one of the topics.” He noted that grade 1 students love to learn about animals in the Creature Features module, that for grade 3 students, the Outer Space module is a consistent favorite, and that for grade 4 students and teachers, the Extreme Settings module about nature and survival is very popular.
Romain also praised the curriculum for actively engaging students in rigorous thinking and collaborative discussion through Socratic Seminars and other features. “One of the things that I appreciate about Wit & Wisdom is that the kids are not just passive observers. They are required to have books and if a Read Aloud is happening, they are reading along. I think professional development is important to make sure that teachers are including students and are using those Think–Pair–Share routines appropriately, that teachers are engaging students in discussion and are pushing students to explain their thinking. The elements are there in the curriculum, and I want to make sure teachers are using them.”
Providing Ample Professional Learning and Instructional Planning Support
Initially, the school’s professional development plan was focused on Scarborough’s reading rope and ensuring that all teachers had a common understanding of how students learn to read before shifting to more advanced topics on pedagogy and student engagement. “We adopted this idea of the reading rope and I wanted to make sure teachers understood the role of each component and that we have to teach the lower strands of phonics and phonemic awareness, but we also have to develop language comprehension and vocabulary and syntax as well,” said Romain.
To support this foundational learning, school leaders found many useful articles on the Great Minds® website, especially the blog series on how Wit & Wisdom supports the language comprehension strands of Scarborough’s reading rope. They leveraged these along with resources from Heggerty, which they use with Fundations® for foundational skills instruction, to explore one aspect of the reading rope in depth each month. The school has also benefited from Great Minds professional learning supports, including sending many of their teachers to Module & Lesson Study professional development sessions and working with an implementation leader to continue strengthening their practice. Key areas of focus have been helping teachers understand the structure of lessons and how to plan for instruction.
“I feel like planning is one of the biggest things, so we invest a lot of time in it. We build in time several times a month to work with teachers and plan lessons together. We did some backward planning, which really helped us, starting with the end of a module and then going backward through the lessons and the Focusing Question Tasks. You can see a big difference in the success of a teacher who teaches each lesson in isolation, not really knowing where the learning is going, versus one who can say, ‘Here’s this overall Essential Question. I know what the End-of-Module Task is, what each Focusing Question Task is, and how each lesson builds to that End-of-Module Task,’” said Romain.
Looking Ahead: A Focus on Support for Multilingual Learners
This year, the school welcomed a sudden influx of Spanish-speaking students from Colombia and Venezuela. Romain says a top priority for the school going forward is making sure that teachers can effectively use Wit & Wisdom to support these students. “Our instructional focus for this coming year is really making sure teachers adapt and can scaffold learning for the ELs [English learners]. That’s the big thing I'm working on for the summer, and I’ve seen that Great Minds has a lot of great resources for that.”
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Alyssa has nearly a decade of education research experience. She has led equity and student success research to support K-12 public school districts across the country in addressing their most pressing challenges, including college access, mental health, social emotional learning, and racial justice. Alyssa holds a B.A. in Psychology and Global Studies and an M.Ed. in Globalization and Educational Change from Lehigh University.